Food for Thought
How Large Parks Are Meeting Guests’ Culinary Expectations

April 4, 2013 No Comments

Food and beverage has always been a significant part of the theme park business. But, today it seems to be bigger than ever, as we are seeing some interesting trends in the growth and expansion of food and beverage at large parks. These trends include more upscale restaurants, grander theming, an eye toward healthier offerings, and catering to niche consumers such as craft beer drinkers. Each of these trends share one goal: to make food and beverage sales, and the food and beverage experience, a larger part of the overall theme park model. The Large Park Report in the February/March 2013 edition of Tourist Attractions & Parks discussed a piece of this trend by exploring the benefits of adding alcoholic beverages for the first time to the previously dry Magic Kingdom. We continue that examination here with several other significant trends that are changing the theme park food and beverage landscape.

Disney Expands Food and Beverage at the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival

This spring, the Walt Disney World Resort opens the 20th anniversary edition of the annual Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival. The festival, which runs through mid May, features expanded flower displays and a variety of topiaries as in past years. Gardening demonstrations with celebrities from HGTV and the Flower Power concert series featuring artists from the 1960s also continue in this 20th year.  Disney has also made some expansions and additions with illuminated gardens, new interactive play areas and a section devoted to “Oz, the Great and Powerful,” Disney’s newest theatrical release.
But, the most significant addition Epcot has made to the festival this year is the introduction of a dozen kiosks, which they are calling Garden Marketplaces. These marketplaces offer small plate food and a variety of beverage options to festival visitors. Guests who have been to the International Food and Wine Festival, held at Epcot each fall, will be quite familiar with these kiosks. They are a subset of the approximately 30 marketplaces featured in the fall. Most are themed to the country in which they reside, with a couple of additions such as a wine kiosk tagged “Fruit by the Glass”; a “Pineapple Promenade” featuring Dole whip products previously only available at Magic Kingdom and Disney’s Polynesian Resort; and a “Florida Fresh” marketplace showcasing locally grown and harvested selections.
The country-specific kiosks offer food and beverages reflecting the culture of the associated country.  Epcot has made an effort to differentiate the selections from what is offered during the Food and Wine Festival. And, where possible, the kiosks tie into the overall flower and garden theme. In the American Adventure, there is a large backyard smoker set up at what they are calling “The Smokehouse: Barbeque and Brews.” In Germany, they are featuring “Bauernmarkt: Farmer’s Market.”
Clearly, this is a significant revenue opportunity for Disney. Previously, the flower and garden festival enhanced the guest experience and brought more visitors to the park and resort hotels. And, while there has always been a merchandise component, this new revenue stream should add to the success of the event.

What prompted Disney to take this step now?

According to Epcot Food and Beverage Executive Chef Jens Dahlmann, it was a matter of timing and guest interest. “We have been trying to add a food and beverage component to the Flower and Garden Festival for about five years. It is a natural progression, as most food is grown from plants. In past years, the edible landscape and vegetable gardens have become more and more popular, as guests are more interested and curious about how food is grown”, cited Dahlmann. He said that since this is the 20th anniversary of the Flower and Garden Festival, the team felt that it was the right time to test it out, and “offer our guests a multi-sensory experience, where they can look at the plants, touch them, smell them and in many cases even taste them.”
The success of the marketplaces at the Food and Wine Festival were also a motivating factor. According to Dahlmann, “The Food and Wine Festival has become a true foodie destination and of course we received feedback from guests to expand it or make it year round. Our team worked really hard though to make the offerings and the feel of Flower and Garden different.”

And, how did they create this differentiation?

“It starts with the names of the Garden Marketplaces, the festival farm planters are huge and really focus on ingredients, the food is all new and unique and ties in local produce, seasons and lifestyle elements,” Dahlmann said.
It will be interesting to measure the business impact the addition of food and beverage has to the festival and to the Resort as a whole. When asked if Disney foresaw further expansion of the number of marketplaces and variety of offerings at future Flower and Garden Festivals, Dahlmann replied “so far the festival and our marketplaces are doing well, and guests love the flavors and offerings. It could well be that we come back with more. We still have many weeks to go, and if our guests keep embracing the food and beverage piece, it will build a strong argument for us to continue and grow it.”
So, is this expansion of food and beverage a growing trend; one that could apply to other parks of various sizes? It very likely is. As for Disney, for now it appears to be limited to Epcot. But, as Dahlmann said, “Epcot is unique and has lots of experience pulling off festivals like this. Not every park has the same space and infrastructure, but you never know, Disney is always good for a surprise.”

SeaWorld and Busch Parks Adding “Adventures in Flavor” Web Series

In March, SeaWorld and Busch announced that it would be launching a web series that will let guests “in on our culinary secrets. “ This new web series intends to take guests “behind the kitchen counter for an insider’s look at what makes our food some of the best in the theme park industry.” This is a novel and progressive approach to connecting with guests from another angle, with hopes of drawing them more frequently to the parks.
The series includes video and some commentary from SeaWorld Orlando’s Executive Chef Hector Colon.  The first in the series focuses on healthy, low calorie and gluten-free food options at the parks. Chef Colon even points out the number of calories that can be burned by spending a day walking the parks. SeaWorld and Busch have also partnered with HealthyDiningFinder.com so that guests can plan their healthy dining in advance of their visit. All unique approaches to enhancing the guest experience and increasing traffic with food and beverage as the driver.

The Growing Presence of Craft Beers

There was a time when only the most popular, most widely sold beer brands were available at theme parks. Budweiser, Bud Light, Coors Light and similar labels were the only options for the parkgoer. Now, as top-shelf imports and quality craft beers have gained in popularity, we are seeing an increase in their availability in and around theme parks. As Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom opened its Be Our Guest restaurant at the end of 2012, it offered alcoholic beverages for the first time in that park’s history. Included on the list are high end brews such as Saison DuPont and Chimay Blue Grand Reserve, both from Belgium. In various bars in the theme parks and resorts, Disney is offering Napa Smith Organic IPA, Angry Orchard Hard Cider, and many other non-mainstream brews.
At Universal CityWalk Hollywood, Karl Strauss Brewing Company offers 10 of its “flagship beers, special releases, and seasonals” on tap at all times. And, down in Orlando, Universal has added a free-standing kiosk along CityWalk dedicated to serving craft brews.
Clearly, there is an increasing demand for higher end beers, with many guests having a significant preference for more than the ordinary. And, it seems that the theme park industry is responding to this growing trend.
(Contributor Greg Curling lives in the Tampa area and works as a financial and business consultant. Reach him at gregcurling@gmail.com.)

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